When does the relationship between an investor and an entrepreneur begin, and when does it end.
It is easy to determine the former. The moment they encountered is the beginning. But the latter… The say that “relationships will end when the money ends”, you can lose the relationship along with a painful failure, or will it be an ending with a good meaning, when you reach the exit and return you were going for. It is quite difficult to define the “end”.
The relationship between Incubate Fund Akaura and Shinsuke Usami began in the late 1990s, booming with the word “bit Valley”, and through twists and turns, it culminated as VOYAGE GROUP a large portfolio of funds. Started in the early days of Internet business, and even now that they have made it big, the investor and the entrepreneur still run side by side with no interruption, I wanted to ask about their story.
-First of all, how long ago did you two meet?
Usami: I think it was ’99. This was before the company name was VOYAGE.
Akaura: Incubate Fund was born in ’99, Therefore, my work with Mr. Usami was in the early days of the fund. At the time when we met, the bit Valley bubble was in full bloom, I remembe that all the investment stakeholders were frantic. Meanwhile, I met Mr. Usami at a certain event and immediately decided to invest.
Usami: At the time, I remember even now that I was told by one of the venture capitalists, “If you do not invest another X billion this month, then we won’t meet our quota. You have to do something.” The internet industry was reveling right in the middle of a bubble.
-Are you saying that at the time you were making investments at that speed?
Akaura: We were confident that the internet will spread dramatically from then on. We did not have the real picture yet, it was the kind of environment where you would think “The crazy one who takes a chance will win.”
Usami: Since there were a limited number of players, money was also gathering intensively. Now it would be unbelievable. (laughs)
Akaura: Initially Mr. Usami had a business model to make advertising with a high matching accuracy, that would acquire the information about the behaviour, taste and interest trends of a user on the interted using their ID. When I heard that, I said, “That sounds good! Let’s invest!”
Usami: It was a service called “MyID”. It was sort of like Facebook ads are now. But what we were actually doing was a sweepstakes website. It was too much ahead of its time, people did not get it. (laughs)
-Was the sales good at the time?
Akaura: Other than striking together a barter for ads elsewhere, we did not make any sales. (laughs)
Usami: We have also take the domains for Valentine’s Day and Christmas and worked on event sites like “valentine.ne.jp”. Those sites were closed after the event was over, so they did not add to the stock of the company at all. (laughs)
Akaura: Nevertheless, we had to get the sites ready by the date of the events, so everyone was working with no sleep under the pressure of the deadline. But the performance did not increase. (laughs) At the time, we were a company of 20-30 people already, and even though the sales did not increase, the management, the staff and even I was not worried at all. I don’t know why, but everyone was so passionate.
Usami: I would like to add that in June 2001, we were profitable for a month. (laughs) However, becuase we needed to stabilize the company, we began to explore the possibilities of M&A. Mr. Akaura and me, we looked around in various places, and we found that the company that was evaluated very highly was Cyber Agent (hereinafter, CA). Thus we became a subsidiary of CA, but we had the assumption that we would someday return to being an independent company.
-It doesn’t seem like you had the feeling that you sold the company, now that is the end.
Akaura: While we were under CA, we learned a lot. I feel we have absorbed a lot, such as the wrap management method to increase sales, and the management idea that people are the most important.
Usami: Even then, on every matter we kept telling Mr. Fujita (Susumu Fujita, President of CyberAgent, Inc.) “Please let us be independent again.” We told him so many times, I think Mr. Fujita was almost sick of it. (laughs) I became an officer at CA, and I promised Mr. Fujita that EC Navi (the previous company name of VOYAGE GROUP) would stay for a few years as a member of CA. After that, when the opportunity was right I asked again about returning to independence and received a positive answer, but we had to gather the necessary funds in one month.
Akaura: Then Mr. Usami and me, we made a list of all the companies that would invest with us, and split up and went through them, but were annihilated. (laughs) Then, Mr. Nagaoka (Hidenori Nagaoka, current Director CFO of VOYAGE GROUP) had found a company and got a positive response. “No way!” That’s how it felt. However, as a result, VOYAGE GROUP has produced the largest return for the investment company. It is a great success.
Exit is ahead
-The scale of VOYAGE GROUP is gradually getting larger. Does your relationship change along with it?
Usami: Since we started our partnership, Mr. Akaura has kept telling me, “That’s a great idea!”, “Let’s make something great!”, “Let’s do it straight!”. I was often given to chasing short-term profits or making small jobs, but Mr. Akaura’s words returned me to more essential things. Now, the banner of our company is “360 degrees of greatness”. I am saying this as if they were my own words, but the truth is that the origin of this is Mr. Akaura telling me “Let’s make something great!” Therefore, rather than the relationship changing, Mr. Akaura has become my point of origin.
Akaura: Mr. Usami is to me the person who taught me what is an internet business. At the time our relationship began, I really did not know the internet. At the time of the predecessor of VOYAGE, I have been participating regularly in business meetings. Well, they were supposed to start at 6 pm, but they usually started at 8 pm. (laughs) So they would finish at 2 am in the early morning. During that time, I did not understand at all this internet business that everyone was discussing.
Usami: But he stayed with us. No matter how many hours. He came along with me even after the meeting to the udon restaurant. (laughs)
Akaura: I don’t understand it, so all I can say is “That’s a good idea”, or “Let’s do this!” (laughs) But while spending a long time together, he taught me about the internet. For me, Mr. Usami is a constant friend.
– Just like an escort runner, who never leaves your side.
Usami: It is reassuring to have that kind of a presence. Now, in retrospect I feel that Mr. Akaura’s words were always simple and essential. When we want to take a stab at a variety of things, Mr. Akaura will say, “First let’s aim to have a million users.” With those words, we suddenly noticed what we should have had our eyes on originally. It was Mr. Akaura who lead us back on the road we should be walking.
Akaura: The persons involved had a strong sense of awareness. Just before I was in debt and started a fund, I understood that if the company you invest in is not doing well, then you are dead. (laughs) That’s why I was desperate.
Usami: When a regular venture capitalist exits, the relationship ends there. But even though Mr. Akaura has already exited now, he still comes to our regular meetings. It is not the relationship of an investor and a manager anymore. He is no longer investing now. (laughs) Partners, this word fits perfectly.
–Your style as an investor, Mr. Akaura, has it changed in part due to your relationship with Mr. Usami.
Akaura: My career as an independent investor is almost in parallel with the growth of VOYAGE GROUP. Therefore, I wouldn’t say it has changed something in me, rather this relationship is for me still a point of origin. Investors and entrepreneurs are all facing the same risks when doing business. Working with Mr. Usami, I have take on a style of working where we are very close to each other, working on challenges together. Also, this relationship is also, inclcuding other investors as well, the base for Incubate Fund.